Niman Is a Pig’s Best Friend

by Jamie Feldmar

The signs start showing up in Story City, about 60 miles outside of Des Moines; diamond-shaped yellow traffic signs, like the ones with black outlines of people walking for “pedestrian crossing.” Only these signs bear the silhouette of two little pigs. Pig crossing. The thing is, there hasn’t been a pig for miles. Or so it seems.

I’m driving from Des Moines to Iowa Falls to visit John and Beverly Gilbert, third-generation pig farmers who are part of the Niman Ranch Pork Company, the nationally known marketing cooperative that buys well-raised pork, poultry, lamb and beef from hundreds of small farmers across the country. The meat is sold in restaurants and retailers from California to Chelsea, and I’m here to see it at the source.

The road has been empty for miles, ribbons of highway unfurling before me, dotted every few miles with these mysterious pig signs. The landscape is not exactly scenic—the fields are empty and vast, with flat black dirt as far as the eye can see, and not a living creature—plant or animal—in sight. Every few miles, a whiff of something fetid filters through the car vents, an olfactory clue that something is alive around here.

After an hour on the empty highway, the Gilberts’ farm comes into view. It’s easy to tell which one is theirs: it’s the only land with pigs on it. There are dozens of them, pink and black and white and muddy, swinging their great bulky torsos back and forth as they meander about in the grass. Little piglets, too, surprisingly adorable, running laps around the adults, zigzagging back and forth and squealing happily.

I shake the gnarled hand of John Gilbert, whose oversized bifocals give him a vaguely owlish appearance, while his wife, Beverley, who’s taller than he is, flashes a sweet, toothy smile. “I’ve been seeing those little pig signs for your farm for the past hour,” I say. “Oh, those aren’t ours,” John replies. I’m confused. “But yours are the only pigs I’ve seen for miles,” I say. John sighs. “You might not have seen them, but on your way here, you just passed 150,000 pigs in confinement.”

Welcome to the heart of the American pork industry. Iowa is the country’s top pork producer, with a hog population far outnumbering its humans. In 2011, the state was home to 19.7 million pigs and fewer than 3 million people. But I hadn’t seen a single one, because the overwhelming majority of operations here are enormous buildings, each containing thousands of hogs in tiny pens. The industry term for these facilities—usually low-slung metal barracks with corrugated roofs—is CAFO, or concentrated animal feeding operation. But they’re better known as factory farms.

Critics from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to Michael Pollan have documented the horrors of CAFOs in graphic detail. Pigs (or protein units, as they are referred to in commodity agriculture) live their whole lives in pens so small that they can’t turn around—standing on metal grates or slatted floors over huge quantities of pig shit. In this confined space, the waste emits ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, which is aerated by fans. If the electricity goes out and a backup generator fails, those gases will kill the trapped pigs—to the tune of up to 2,500 per building—in minutes.

Packed in this tightly, with no access to fresh air, disease—another by-product of these poorly conceived pork pens—spreads swiftly, so every animal gets antibiotics right in its feed, which also has been found to make them put on weight even faster. In addition, there are horrifying accounts of animal mistreatment and abuse at the hands of CAFO staff (to use the term “farmers” seems inaccurate).

Then come the environmental repercussions: The waste that piles up at a CAFO—manure, dead piglets and so forth—must be disposed of somewhere, often in putrid man-made lagoons so toxic that they give neighbors asthma, or, occasionally, dumped into local waterways. As a result, Iowa has some of the most polluted rivers and streams in the country.

Not many years ago, it was different. Farming is a deeply rooted part of Iowan culture (this is a state that broadcasts commodity report updates between Top 40 hits on the radio), and many of the farms here have been in the same family for four or five generations. The geography, climate and soil in the region are ideal for raising corn and soybeans, which these days are the ingredients that go into making pork.

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Small- and medium-size family farms were raising hogs and selling them to the local market, getting a steady price per pound until about 1998, when the hog market crashed. Pork prices tanked from around 50 cents a pound to 8 or 10 cents a pound, while the price of corn skyrocketed.

Farmers within driving distance of, say, Austin, can hold themselves to high standards and market accordingly. But in the sparsely populated heartland, farmers lacked such alternatives. The mantra was “get big or get out”—a mindset U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz had popularized 20 years earlier and which became the prevailing paradigm.

Meatpackers offered contracts to farmers who would switch to large-scale industrial methods, and the CAFO boom was born. It supersized the amount of cheap pork available to the American eater. Small farmers could no longer afford to stay in business—without a contract and without a viable alternative marketplace, those who didn’t go CAFO typically abandoned farming altogether.

Enter Paul Willis. A third-generation farmer in Thornton, Willis had always taken a keen interest in politics. Avoiding the Vietnam War in the ’60s, he’d spent three years in Nigeria with the Peace Corps before coming back to take over the family farm from his ailing stepfather. He’s an animal and nature lover with a passion for land and waterway preservation, and he found the prospect of erecting a CAFO on his family farm too sickening to even consider.

Willis kept farming the way he thought was right—allowing his pigs to roam freely, rotating crops (corn and soybeans) and animals across his acres and never treating the pigs with antibiotics. His meat was rich and full-flavored, which the fat-o-phobic ’80s market was not interested in. In fact, Willis was getting paid less than market rate for having “overweight” pigs. Frustrated and faced with the prospect of losing his farm, Willis began searching for an alternative market, one that would appreciate his premium pork. He had to go to California to find what he was looking for.

In 1994, Willis was visiting his old Peace Corps friend Jeanne McCormack, who also happened to be a third-generation lamb farmer near San Francisco. Over dinner, Willis was lamenting the state of Iowa’s pork industry when McCormack suggested he meet a rancher named Bill Niman, who was partnering with other small farmers and getting their meat into the hands of those who would appreciate the quality. Niman was raising beef and pigs in Bolinas, California—selling his free-range meat to some of the Bay Area’s best chefs, like Alice Waters and Judy Rodgers. Working with a partner named Orville Shell, his fledgling company was aptly called Niman-Shell. McCormack knew of Niman’s ability to get good meat into the right hands, and set up a lunch for the three of them the very next day. “I said, ‘I bet you anything, my pork is better than yours,’” Willis recalls saying at the pivotal meeting. “Bill goes, ‘Send me a sample.’” Willis sent a FedEx box of frozen chops to California, where Niman asked a distinguished panel of chefs and friends (including Waters) to taste-test it. “It was unanimous,” Willis recalls. “Everyone said it was the best pork they’d ever had.”

Niman paid Willis a premium for his meat, and Willis was soon the main pork supplier for Niman’s fledgling company—sending about 30 animals a week for a price much sweeter than the commodity market. By 1998, Niman bought out Shell and, with Willis, formed the Niman Ranch Pork Co.—putting Willis in charge of scouting out small, sustainably focused farmers like himself to sell their raised-right pork for a guaranteed fair price. “I don’t know what we would have done if we didn’t find Niman,” says Willis’ daughter, Sarah, who lives and works on the farm today. “We would have had to quit farming, rent the land and move out.”

As would many other farmers who are now part of Niman’s 725-strong group of farmers, who not only get steady prices for their meat, but have a financial stake in the company, too. At that pivotal moment of the ’98 hog market crash, to say that the Niman Ranch Pork Co. saved the day for many family farms is no exaggeration. “We were paying our farmers 43.5 cents a pound in that period in 1998 when anyone else selling pigs was getting 8 or 15 cents,” says Willis.

Originally he asked a handful of other farmers—mainly friends like John and Beverly Gilbert, who saw eye-to-eye with him and raised their animals accordingly—if they’d be interested in selling pork to Niman. The paycheck alone was a major incentive, but so was the philosophical comfort of working with a company that valued family farms. “We care about what market our product goes to, and that right there puts us in the minority,” says John Gilbert.

But as they began buying pork from more and more farmers, they wanted to ensure that quality—both of the meat itself, and of the lives the animals lived. Willis paired up with Diane Halverson, who was working at the time with the Animal Welfare Institute, to develop a series of husbandry protocols for all Niman Ranch farmers to adhere to—whether they raise pigs, beef cattle, poultry or lambs. A standardized system made it easy for prospective farmers to understand what Niman Ranch was all about. Though Halverson no longer works with Niman Ranch (the company now partners with renowned animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin), the early guidelines she developed remain in place.

The most important element of any Niman farm is that it is family-run. That’s because such farms tend to be smaller, use more traditional methods and their owners tend to be more invested in the future of their land and animals than paid hands at corporate operations. Beyond that, farmers must agree to never treat their animals with antibiotics or hormones, feed them only vegetarian diets and raise them on environmentally sustainable land. (Their definition of “sustainable” stipulates that the farm or ranch must not “harm or damage the land and its natural resources, preserving both for future generations.”)

The humane methods laid out by Halverson and later Grandin require that all Niman animals are raised outdoors on pasture or in deeply bedded pens (covered structures with large nests of fresh straw on the floor and plenty of room for the animals to run around), and that the animals spend their entire lives with their littermates and natural social groups.

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Because the animals are allowed to act out their instincts, farmers don’t have to resort to many of the cruel methods CAFOs use to curb the behavior that can arise in confined environments, such as docking tails, which CAFOs do to reduce biting. Piglets and calves are weaned slowly, and the animals take nearly twice as long to reach market weight as their commercial cousins. And since Niman animals run around in and breathe fresh air, they rarely get sick, and the need for antibiotics is essentially moot.

All three of the hog farmers I visited in Iowa pointed out to me that working with Niman allows them to enjoy the sheer act of farming. Being outside in fresh air, having healthy animals for their children and grandchildren to play with and taking pride in their land and animals are all intangible benefits that come from working with Niman. “Plus, they listen to farmers,” says John Gilbert—explaining that the company is receptive to discussion about better farming methods.

The care with which Niman farmers raise their animals extends all the way through their life cycle: Animals are slaughtered at nearby custom plants that work specifically with Niman’s regulations. (Texas has no Niman processing facilities, thus there are no Niman farms in the state.) “All farm animals have one bad day, and we’re always working to make even that last day less stressful,” says Sarah Willis. To that end, the animals are driven in groups over a relatively short distance, and guided in groups by rattles (not metal rods) in a progression from pen to pen, until they’re stunned and bled.

Although it’s still a slaughterhouse, the whole process is designed not just for profitability and speed, but to stress the animals as little as possible, which makes them both easier to handle and better-tasting; lactic acid from stress wreaks havoc on muscle tissue—and flavor. Big Ag pigs are bred to be lean, mean, “other white meat” machines. “Why bother putting all this time and energy into raising animals the right way if you’re going to ruin it all with a stressful slaughter?” asks Willis.

But the Iowa farmers and frolicking pigs aren’t the only parties to benefit. Eaters do, too. “The genesis of Niman was really not this higher calling of anything beyond the desire for truly outstanding food,” says Jeff Tripician, chief marketing and sales officer with the company. “When Bill Niman started the company in 1972, he said, ‘I’m going to provide myself with the greatest food possible.’ He thought he could do that in a very old-world way in terms of raising practices, but it was always connected to taste,” says Tripician.

Niman farmers aren’t restricted to any particular breed of livestock, but most of them are drawn to heritage pigs (Durocs or Berkshires, for example), which tend to have a finer muscle texture and fuller flavor all around. “Niman has really helped bring a lot of marginal breeds back from the brink,” says Gilbert. “Conventional hog farmers raise white breed pigs, like Landrace or York, which are bred for leanness. Commodity pork has 15 to 20 percent saltwater added, to keep it from drying out when it doesn’t have any fat,” he explains, shaking his head. “What’s the point?” “They spend a lot of time working on the flavor profile of the meat,” says Mary Cleaver, the owner of Cleaver Co. catering and the Green Table restaurant in Chelsea, who has been sourcing beef, lamb and pork from Niman for over a decade. “I love that Niman has such strong animal welfare practices, and I love that they’re working hard to try to keep the food supply in a better place,” she says. “But if your product doesn’t have a good flavor, no one is going to want to eat it.”

What started out as a few Bay Area chefs has expanded along with the explosion of America’s appetite for better ingredients and conscious purchasing. While many top chefs like working directly with small, local farmers, that involves some complicated realities. Maybe you only get one pork loin a week, or have to take lamb off the menu when the local farmer you are partnered with harvested one flock and is waiting for the next to fatten up. Niman offers the convenience of ordering from a larger brand with the conscience of knowing the animals lived better lives. That combination lands them on shelves around Texas at places such as Whole Foods Market and Wheatsville Food Co-op, as well as at local restaurants like Fork & Vine, Counter Cafe, Lenoir and Trace via quality wholesale meat purveyor, Lone Star Foodservice. Niman even sells to some fast-casual chains like Chipotle.

As the company has grown, its mission and its methods have, too. Today, the company has field workers in each of the 28 states where its 725 family farms are located, and its agents pay regular visits to the farms to make sure that Niman protocols are upheld. The company doesn’t recruit new farmers to join its network; they rely instead on word-of-mouth between farmers—echoing the start of the Pork Company nearly 20 years ago.

In 2009, the growing company merged with its chief investor, Chicago-based Natural Food Holdings. The change brought with it a huge increase in organization and profit, along with one very notable loss: Bill Niman vocally parted ways with the company over a dispute related to the cattle-handling practices, though the company kept his name. “We’ll still be friends for life,” says Sarah Willis, but it’s clear the breakup wasn’t easy. (Today Bill and his wife, Nicolette, still raise grassfed beef and pastured turkeys on the Bolinas fields where it all began—marketing the meat under the new name BN Ranch.)

Despite parting ways with its founder, Niman Ranch has been able to make great strides toward protecting and promoting small family farms. “We realize that to get to the correct end—an outstanding product—we need to have the right beginning,” says Tripician. “We’ve become more mission-oriented in the past six years, in terms of making a difference in American agriculture. We are really trying to create an environment that rewards family farming. We don’t own the farms; we just provide them the financial foundation to have a vibrant life.” To that end, the company won’t sell to just anyone. “We have a healthy paranoia about having too large a customer,” says Tripician. “If it would put too much stress on the farmer to create supply, we’ll take a pass.” He mentions Walmart, Hyatt Hotels and Trader Joe’s as companies he’s turned down or ended relationships with in the past once they’d gotten too big. And even though Niman supplies Chipotle with meat, it’s only a percentage. Chipotle founder Steve Ells sources the rest from farmers who meet the same standards as Niman farmers.

For food-world insiders who see the words “Niman Ranch” displayed on high-end menus around town, learning just how small the company actually is comes as something of a surprise. Support for the Niman name runs deep. At a farmer appreciation luncheon last year at the upscale Italian restaurant Lincoln in Lincoln Center, fooderati from Marion Nestle to Tom Colicchio cut into Niman rib-eyes while watching home videos of ranchers in Idaho. Aside from any glitz or glamour associated with the Niman name, though, everything pales in comparison to the real benefits offered to the farmers thousands of miles away: economic security and a support network of other progressive farmers. “There’s a lot of peer pressure in the farm industry out here,” explains John Gilbert back in Iowa Falls. “If you do things too differently, you won’t be accepted. Farming the way we do does make us a bit of an outsider, but it doesn’t bother me too much,” he says. “That’s what Niman Ranch does—it gives farmers like us a place to belong.”